Jan Bonda’s The One Purpose of God (Eerdmans 1998) is the third book-length monograph in defense of universalism that I’ve reviewed, the other two being Adams’ Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God, as well as Talbott’s The Inescapable Love of God.
I’ve chosen these three books because they present the most astute defense of universalism on the market. Adams is more philosophical, Talbott philosophical and exegetical, while Boda is basically exegetical, with a certain amount of historical and pastoral theology thrown in. It is striking that Talbott and Boda both hail from the Dutch Reformed community. This bears out Chesterton’s old quip that universalism is an optimistic form of Calvinism!
Although conditionalism was the initial alternative favored by "evangelicals," it is being overtaken by universalism. This is not surprising. Conditionalism is a compromise position transitional to universalism. Anyone who finds everlasting torment to be morally or emotionally repugnant will find annihilationism about as distasteful, for the difference is a difference of degree, not of kind.
Conditionalism is a negative position, a reactionary position. But universalism entails a drastic deconstruction and reconstruction of traditional Christian theology. It presents a positive, albeit radical alternative to the traditional reading of Scripture.
Bonda’s book comes highly recommended. Of course, the author can’t be held responsible for what they say, but they’re an important barometer of the theological climate.
On the back cover, Michael Bauman tells us that "what Charles Chauncy did for Rom 5, Bonda’s volume does for the entire epistle." Ah, yes, good old Charles Chauncy, the gadfly of Christian revival and Presbyterian turned Unitarian. Not all of us would regard that historical endorsement as altogether auspicious.
John Hick pipes in with the admonition that "the traditional doctrine of eternal punishment shatters the Christian conception of a limitlessly loving God. Many of us have rejected the doctrine for that reason."
But given Hick’s Kantian religious epistemology, how is he in a position to know what God is like? To know that God is a loving God--much less a limitlessly loving God (whatever that might mean)? Isn’t it essential to Hick’s pluralism that God be unknowable? We may know "that" there is a God, but not "what" he (she? it? them?) is/are like?
For his part, John Sanders informs us that this is "easily the most biblically grounded case for universalism to appear in some time." For that reason alone, the book is worth reviewing.
The book comes with a foreword by Sierd Woudstra. His foreword doesn’t add anything substantive to the argument, but merely highlights certain strands in the body of the text.
Bonda also has a preface. He and Woudstra indulge in a bit of name-dropping as they mention their encouraging correspondence with Herman Ridderbos and Hendrikus Berkhof. This is a telling commentary on the sorry state of the church in Holland.
As you might expect, Bonda’s book was originally written in Dutch. I’ll be referring to the English translation by Bruinsma. It is possible that this will result in my seizing upon certain words or connotations thereof that do not reflect the original text.
However, the audience for the English edition is not the same as the audience for the Dutch edition. And the audience for the English edition is, potentially, at least, far wider than the audience for the original text. It is entirely appropriate, therefore, to review the English edition on its own terms, as it stands. My only interest is with the argument, and not its degree of correspondence with the original. Whether the argument is identical with the case made by Bonda is irrelevant. For convenience, I’ll attribute the argument to him. And I’ll confine my comments to what I regard as the leading strands of his argument.
Bonda begins with a couple of tearjerkers. This is a softening-up exercise to win the reader’s sympathy in advance of any argument.
One is the case of a parishioner who was heartbroken over the fate of her brother, who had died outside the faith. Says Boda, "Did this mean that all she could do was accept God’s judgment? Was that what I was to say? I could not bring myself to do that" (2).
This is, of course, one of the most wrenching situations in pastoral ministry. We see a person in pain. We’d like to offer some words of consolation, but we can’t. Yes, any reader can empathize with that situation.
But this is not a problem for pastoral ministry alone. There are many professions where you must be the bearer of bad news, where you are called upon dispense devastating, soul-crushing news. The oncologist who must tell the parents that their five-year old has terminal cancer. The policeman who must tell a widow that her husband was just shot to death. The commanding officer who must write a letter of condolence to grieving parents. The doctor who must go into the waiting room to tell the parents that their only son died of an overdose. The fireman who must tell a child that her mommy didn’t make it out of the house in time. The detective who must tell the parents that their abducted daughter was raped and murdered. And the list goes on.
Tragedy is a fixture of life in a fallen world. We can’t put a happy face on everything that happens just to make the orphaned and the abandoned, the victims and the bereaved feel better. Not every story has a happy ending. You can’t rewrite the ending if you don’t like how it comes out. Turn every tragedy into a comedy. The knight rescues the princess from the dragon, and they live happily ever after. The princess breaks the spell with a kiss, and they live happily ever after.
Of course, there’s a sense in which universalism is a fairy tale come true--if you believe it. But that’s a separate argument. My immediate point is that terribly things happen every day. If a pastor can’t bring himself to state a hard truth, he should leave the ministry.
And suppose, for the sake of argument, that her brother were a convicted killer. Everyone is related to someone. What would he say to the mother of the victim? Would what is comforting to a relative of the convict be comforting to a relative of the victim? It isn't possible to make everyone happy all of the time.
Bonda also introduces the case of a life-long friend who broke with the faith. His friend found the text of the baptismal service especially offensive: "O almighty, eternal God. Thou who hast according to Thy severe judgment punished the unbelieving and unrepentant world with the flood, and hast according to Thy great mercy saved and protected believing Noah and his family; Thou who hast drowned the obstinate Pharaoh and all his host in the Red Sea and led Thy people Israel through the midst of the sea upon dry ground--by which baptism was signified... (5)"
This his friend characterizes as "unashamed sadism" (5). And what is the reader to make of that reaction?
To begin with, there’s nothing wrong with our having a soft spot for a friend or family member. That's only natural. Such fellow feeling goes with being a member of the human race, with our emotional codependency as needy creatures.
We don’t have to feel the same way about everyone. At the same time, there are limits--even to friendship. It’s one thing to fix a parking ticket for a friend, quite another to buy him an airline ticket so that he can skip the country if he’s complicit in a fatal hit-and-run. Friends and family do not command our ultimate allegiance--or if they do, then our loyalties are seriously skewed.
God is not kin to us. God is not subject to emotional arm-twisting. This is one reason that God is a just judge. And that is why, by the same token, a human judge must recuse himself if the defendant is a friend or family member.
This is a book in defense of universalism, but notice what his friend finds so very outrageous. There is nothing in the text of the baptismal service--at least the portion seized upon by his friend, that addresses eternal punishment. Rather, the punishment in view is a historical judgment. Do Bonda and his friend take equal exception to any form of divine judgment whatsoever? Does Bonda deny the historicity of the Flood and the Exodus?
Bonda is incensed at a God "who did not show his goodwill toward humankind" (5) in general. So be it! But I don’t see Bonda’s friend in the same light that Bonda does. Instead of waxing indignant that God didn’t save everyone, his friend ought, instead, to be humble and thankful that God favored him with birth and life and length of days in a Christian land. Indeed, the damned will judge Bonda’s friend all the more harshly for doing so much less with so much more (Mt 11:21-24). It is often the blesséd who take their blessings for granted. Those that lead a charmed existence within the walled garden of the church, shielded from the full fury of the wilderness, bite and spite the hand of a loving providence--like a pardoned offender who lashes out at the judge because the judge did not pardon every other offender. To be such an ingrate does despite to the very marrow of mercy.
From there, Bonda switches to a primer in historical theology, with many interesting quotes from Augustine. Bonda finds the Augustinian argument downright "shocking." I, however, find the argument to be, in the main, reverent and reasonable. It is true that one can pick apart some of the detailed exegesis, as well as his privative theory of evil, but his theodicy is broadly and deeply Scriptural.
It is not as though the Reformed are unacquainted with the Arminian side of the argument. This is very well trodden ground. In every generation, the same threadbare criticisms are voiced, as if they’d never been answered before. For what it’s worth, I myself have written lengthy reviews of books by Geisler, Picirilli, and Walls in which these men marshal their best arguments against Calvinism and in favor of Arminianism.
It is funny to see Bonda take Augustine to task for his Neoplatonic theory of evil when he goes on to oppose Origen to Augustine--even though Origen is far more indebted to Neoplatonism than Augustine ever was.
Bonda takes umbrage at the idea that "God uses this lostness to reveal how, through his grace, he freely gives them his salvation. Does this mean that salvation is bought with the lost state of the doomed; that it is enjoyed at the expense of their lostness?...What would we think of someone who would bring happiness to others in such a way? And what would we think of people who want to be made happy n such a way?" (24).
By way of comment:
i) This is the wrong question to ask. The first question to ask is not, "What would we think?" but, "What does God think?" Reality is not a designer dress, cut-and-tailored to suit our personal prejudice.
ii) Salvation is bought by the blood of Christ, not the lost state of the damned. To say that God uses the state of the damned to reveal the gratuity of grace does not attribute redemptive value to their demise.
iii) Bonda disregards the crucial distinction between innocence and guilt. God does no wrong to sinners by damning them. Their damnation is just punishment for sin.
iv) The eschatological reversal of fortunes in a common theme in Scripture. The godly who suffered in this life will prosper in the afterlife, while the ungodly who prospered in this life will suffer in the afterlife. If Bonda has a problem with that, he is at war with a major theme of Scripture.
Bonda tells the reader that Barth convinced him of the unbiblical character of Calvinism (25, n.33). Needless to say, a number of Reformed theologians (e.g., Frame, Klooster, Van Til) have indicted Barth for an unbiblical doctrine of election.
Even a very sympathetic mediating theologian like Berkouwer has leveled many of the same criticisms. For that matter, Jürgen Moltmann, who’s the greatest living universalist, has this to say:
"Calvin wrote disciplined commentaries in addition to his Institutio. Barth’s Epistle to the Romans does not fit into the category of scholarly New Testament commentaries...Barth’s dialectical doctrine of predestination cannot be found in this form in the Bible, nor can the magnificent structure of his doctrine of reconciliation," God Will Be All in All, R. Bauckham, ed. (T&T Clark (1999), 231.
Bonda summarizes, with evident disdain, the view of Dante that "here piety can exist only when there is no more compassion and vice versa: No one can have faith if he allows himself to be compassionate" (26).
This calls for a couple of comments:
i) What Dante has in view is the state of the damned, not the state of the living. Yes, there comes a point at which continued compassion is out of place--when continued compassion is a synonym for sympathy with evil. In hell, there is no distinction between the sinner and the sin.
ii) Again, this is not about compassion in general, but compassion for the damned. Even if this life, mercy or empathy for the wicked can be out of place. It is morally deranged to feel the same way about Stalin and his innocent victims.
Bonda summarizes, with palpable disapprobation, the view of Aquinas that "the saved will in fact rejoice at the pains of those who are condemned" (26). It should be unnecessary to point out that you can find exactly that same sentiment expressed at length in holy scripture (e.g., Rev 16-19).
But, of course, univeralism is committed to this amoral attitude. Like the übermensch and the psychopath, the universalist is beyond good and evil. For the universalist, morality is a vice, not a virtue, for too much morality is judgmental. To be a universalist you must gouge out your eyes and cultivate a state of moral blindness. Once you repudiate the principle of retributive justice in favor of remedial punishment, you are wedded to moral relativism.
He goes on to say:"We have grown up with Augustine’s arguments...we listened to this teaching and accepted it. It was horrifying, but nothing could be done about it. Who were we to argue with God...You had no option but to accept it passively. But it kept churning in your thoughts. You could not voice it because to do so was sinful. Nonetheless, it was always there: How marvelous would it be if God were different!" (27).
Notice the sudden shift from the autobiographical third-person to the compulsory, inclusive second-person. This is so characteristic of the moral conceit of the universalist. He assumes that everyone feels the same way as he does, only a universalist has the courage to cast off his shackles.
Unlike Bonda, I didn’t grow up in the Reformed church, much less a Reformed culture and country. I do not find the Augustinian picture to be at all horrifying. Sobering? Yes. Humbling? Yes.
Actually, we need not be passive recipients of the Word. To the contrary, we should follow the motto of Anselm: I believe so that I may understand. We happily and trustfully submit to whatever God tells us, and then proceed to seek out the wisdom of his ways.
If you can’t trust in God, if God is not trustworthy, then the game is up. If you can’t bring yourself to trust in God, then you're not a believer. It’s a simple as that.
This is not a choice between a questioning or unquestioning faith. It is because we have an unquestioning faith in the goodness of God, in his wisdom, veracity, and justice, that we are free to ask questions. But we ask questions the way a child will ask a question of his father. You don’t question someone you don’t trust? If you can’t trust him, you can’t trust the answer. We never question God’s answers; rather, his answers supply the raw material for our follow-up questions.
I do not wish that God were other than he is. The assumption here is that if I were God, hell would not exist. Now, there are many men who feel that way. This is a great dividing line.
There are people who never get it. For them, sin is not a big deal. No matter what they see, no matter what they hear, they can never bring themselves to take sin all that seriously. They are a little too nice for their own good. This is the dividing line between Augustine and Pelagius, Erasmus and Luther, Salodeto and Calvin, Butler and Whitefield, Chauncy and Edwards.
The stranger to grace is oftentimes a more likable man than the champion of grace. He oozes with charm. He’s magnanimous and gregarious. He has a deep and unshakable faith in the goodness of man. If you were sharing a dorm or ship cabin, poor old Jeremiah wouldn’t make the cut!
The nominal Christian is a half-breed--having the church for his mother and the world for his father. If he were a purebred pagan, he wouldn’t be half so gentle and generous. But as a half-breed, he’s used to living off the fat of the Motherland, basking in the radiant warmth of maternal grace, dining on the tender morsels and juicy appetizers from the oven of Mother Church. It is easy for this corn-fed freeloader to be easy-going because he’s had it so easy all the days of his life. But by the same token, it only takes a little adversity to scratch the pretty coat of paint and instantly expose a very cold and steely frame beneath.
It’s like the life of a rich man. When you’re rich, everyone goes out of their way for you--but as soon as you loose your fortune, you loose your fiends.
No one really wants to see everyone saved. Ironically, the appeal of universalism is far more provincial than that. The only people any of us care about at a personal level are those close to us. Everyone else is an abstraction. We project our feelings for our loved ones onto strangers, but this extension is purely intellectual, for we don’t truly feel the same way about a stranger as we do about a friend or family member--not unless we get to know them, to befriend them.
Not only do we not wish to see everyone saved, but as Wouldstra is candid enough to admit, "all of us can think of individuals we would ‘hate’ to see go to heaven" (xviii). So let us, once and for all time, drop all the mock sentiment, all the false piety, all the perfunctory and hypocritical cant about how hard it is to stomach the doctrine of hell.
It is important, here, to distinguish between guilt and modesty. A Christian is very self-conscious about being an object of grace. That is good. We ought to feel self-conscious, even to the point of embarrassment, about how God visited his mercy and grace upon the likes of you and me, of all people.
But we should not, on that account, feel survivor’s guilt. We should feel infinitely humbled by grace. We should feel our guilt. We should sense how undeserving we are of grace. But we should never act as though we were in the wrong to be favored by God when others were passed by. A Christian is a trophy of God’s grace. This reflects badly on us, but well upon God.
Bonda introduces the nonsensical charge that hell is blasphemous. Nonsensical, I say, because hell and blasphemy are both Biblical categories to begin with. This is just a rhetorical ruse--a calculated ploy to put the Bible-believer on the defensive by charging him with heresy before he can charge you with heresy.
Bonda takes issue with Piper’s contention that there are two types of divine love. This is, however, a separate issue from either reprobation or damnation. Not every Calvinist would agree with Piper’s bifurcation. It depends on how you define common grace.
Bonda also trots out Talbott’s objection that a parent can’t love a God who would predestine his child to hell. I’ve already written a lengthy review of his book, so I’ll just confine myself to a few brief comments:
i) As a practical matter, countless Christian parents do love God despite the fact that some of their errant children may well be hell-bound.
ii) Conversely, there are parents to spoil their kids rotten; who lie, cheat and steal for their kids; who will brook no discipline or breath of criticism, who will sue if their delinquent kids are expelled from school, who will buy a plane ticket if their kids commit murder.
Surely we need to draw a distinction between good parenting and bad parenting, between godly love and godless love.
iii) In addition, is this an objection to hell, or to reprobation? Since a universalist would take exception to hell whether or not you plug the fire and brimstone into a predestinarian scheme, it’s a red herring at this point for Bonda to bring Calvinism into the argument.
iv) Actually, predestination makes hell easier to defend, because it means that hell serves a purpose in the wisdom and the justice of God.
v) The universalist is committed to a deterministic scheme of some sort himself--otherwise he cannot guarantee the salvation of all. So predestination is not the salient issue.
vi) Everyone is someone’s "child." Charles Manson was someone’s child. To be someone’s child is hardly exculpatory. If a grown man commits rape and murder, can he hope to be acquitted by lifting his shirt and pointing to his navel? Innocent by reason of a belly-button? If this is the best that a universalist can do, he does more damage to the credibility of his cause than anything I could ever hurl at it.
Bonda says that we should ditch the doctrine of hell because it induces anxiety in insecure believers. To this a couple of replies are in order:
i) This is a perfect illustration of just how mindless and childish univeralism really is. You might as well say that we should stop believing in natural disasters or fatal accidents or terminal illness or violent crime for fear the belief in such a dire possibility might give us bad dreams, panic attacks, depression, hypertension, and the like. And, indeed, some people are plagued by irrational worries and crippling phobias.
But that has nothing to do with the reality of the risk. These dangers do exist. Whether the peril is great or vanishingly slight is quite independent of my anxieties. And whether there is a hell is quite independent of my blood pressure or insomnia. Is a cliff not sheer because I’m afraid of heights? For better or worse, the world I inhabit isn’t all that accommodating!
ii) The solution is to put fear into its proper perspective. Some professing believers have good reason to fear, for they are only nominal believers. Some true believers lack the assurance of salvation because their theology is defective. As with a disease, the cure is not to pretend there is no illness, but to correctly diagnose and treat the disease.
When Bonda says that some believers become so despondent over hell that they kill themselves, this evinces their unreasonable state of mind, for if you’re really afraid that you might be hellbound, then suicide would be a fate worse than death! A real pastor would talk them through their confusion and despair.
This is all before Bonda gets around to exegesis. One methodological flaw in his analysis is the way in which he jumps about. Instead of interpreting each author on his own terms, he will start with one author, then insert material from another author. Frankly, this looks like a way of caulking the gaps where his argument breaks down.
Boda devotes the first two sections to the intercession of Abraham and Moses in order to show that the final judgment is not the final word on the fate of the lost. But there are several problems with this line of argument:
i) His examples involve historical judgments, not the final judgment.
ii) His examples illustrate the value of intercessory prayer. But in Scripture, as well as church history, you also have the phenomenon of unanswered prayer. Just as God is sovereign in judgment, so is he sovereign in prayer.
iii) As a matter of fact, God did visit his judgment upon Sodom and Gomorrah, and in quite spectacular fashion, as a future deterrent.
iv) Bonda tries to get around this by appeal to Ezk 16:53,55. However, this appeal falls flat on two counts:
a) It disregards the allegorical character of Ezk 16.
b) It would, in any event, have reference to future "Sodomites," and not to those who perished in the past. If anything, this allegory is prophecy of the New Covenant.
v) As a matter of fact, Israel did incur the judgment of God, many times over. What survives is a remnant. A remnant survives the flood (Noah’s family). A remnant survives Sodom (Lot’s family). A remnant survives the Exodus (Caleb, Joshua). A remnant survives the Assyrian deportation. A remnant survives the Babylonian captivity.
vi) Intercession has its limits (e.g. Jer 7:16; 11:14; 14-15).
Boda then spends a few pages on the parable of the prodigal son. But, once again, he’s grasping at straws:
i) Even if this parable were consistent with univeralism, it is hardly a prooftext. It doesn’t imply universalism.
ii) For that matter, it is equally consistent with Calvinism. The prodigal is the backslider. The elect can backslide. But by the grace of God, the backslider, if elect, will be restored.
iii) And although the younger son is reconciled to his father, the older son is estranged from his father--and for the very same reason. The action of restoring the younger son results in the equal and opposite reaction of the older son, who is alienated by reception accorded his younger brother.
iv) Such a one-sided appeal turns a blind eye to the parables of judgment (Mt 24-25; Lk 12:35-46).
In passing, Bonda takes the distinction between many stripes and few stripes (Lk 12:47-48) to indicate a temporary punishment. But how does that follow?
i) If you take "few" stripes to indicate temporary punishment, in contrast to "many" stripes, then you would have to infer that some of the damned suffer for a while, while others suffer forever. But if you soften the contrast, then you no longer have an argument at all. This illustrates the limitations of figurative language.
ii) Why not cash out the contrast in terms of degree rather than duration? As intensive rather than extensive? The duration is the same, but the severity is not. Surely this is a familiar distinction. Some forms of punishment are sterner than others. A shorter punishment may even be harsher.
He then turns, as he must, to Mt 25:46. His interpretation is nothing short of remarkable:
"Yet it is clear that the sins Jesus lists in this passage do not constitute the blasphemy against the Spirit. Assuming that Jesus did not utter this severe word with the intention of contradicting what he said moments before, we must accept that the sins mentioned in this passage will eventually be forgiven. This means, however strange this may sound to us, that this statement of Jesus about eternal punishment is not the final word for those who are condemned," 70.
Strange indeed! By way of reply: to single out the unpardonable sin, committed in this life, does not imply that everyone will be forgiven of every other sin even if they die impenitent. To say that sins are forgivable is not to say that sins are forgiven. That is to confuse a necessary condition with a sufficient condition. In Scripture, remission is contingent on contrition and atonement.
Bonda then tries to shore up his assertion in a footnote: "the Greek word for eternity (aion) is translated both ‘age’--’this age,’ and the ‘future age’ (Mt 12:32)--and world ‘the end of the world’ (Mt 13:40,49; 28:20). In both cases a time period is intended that has an end" (70).
By way of comment:
i) This would not be an argument for universal salvation, but universal annihilation. Based on the symmetry of Mt 25:46, "eternal" life as well as "eternal" damnation would each enjoy a limited shelf-life.
ii) Bonda offers no semantic evidence that "aion" bears this singular import. He says he consulted a number of reference works, but it doesn’t show. All the reference works that I consulted (BAGD, DNTT, EDNT, Louw-Nida, Turner: Christian Words) boil down to much the same thing: you have a handful of occurrences of the aion/aionias word-group where the it bears a past temporal sense ("ages ago"); another handful where it bears a past atemporal sense ("before the world"); and yet another handful where it bears a spatial sense ("world without end").
In most occurrences it either bears a future temporal sense ("never ending"), or an eschatological sense ("the age to come"). In Johannine usage, the future temporal sense ("eternal life") takes its inception in the present. Now the future temporal sense is operative in at least some of the traditional prooftexts for everlasting punishment, while the eschatological sense is operative in the others.
iii) Even if we limit the force of "aion" to the "age" or the "world" to come, that only pushes the question back a step, for we then must ask, how long is the age to come? And surely one of the distinguishing features of the two ages, in Biblical eschatology, is that the present age is characterized by mortality, as over against the future age. The future age is ageless.
iv) In the Apocalypse, you even have a duplex form ("to the ages of the ages"), which is repeatedly applied to God as well as creaturely agents.